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Author Topic: Mother-May-I and 20 questions: Games GMs play  (Read 6059 times)
Joel P. Shempert
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« on: January 08, 2008, 11:34:24 PM »

A little over a year ago, in the thread [The Shadow of Yesterday] Drugs, hugs, knives, and Zu, Ron was talking about some GMing techniques and principles, and he said this:
ii) Establish and participate in an assembly-of-equals when it comes to announced actions and conflicts, so that people don't trap themselves in a scared corner (very common!). In other words, anything stated for the first time is available for feedback and editing through full-group dialogue. No one has pre-emptive speaking authority, although someone does have finalizing authority.

The central concept for successful use: in doing this, everyone must focus on and respect what the game (text or played) provides so far. You will find that any and all dispute about "could have," "would have," "but wasn't he there not here" and related stuff - which I have seen occupy upwards of 70% of total attention and dialogue during actual play - will disappear.

(Emphasis mine.) I was re-reading the thread today and this bit leapt out at me. As a matter of fact I jerked forward in my chair and glued my eyes to the screen, 'cause that's been a problem plaguing my games for years. General confusion, jostling and jockeying over who did what and how and if-you-did-that-Id've-done-this--could all almost be a definition of roleplaying at times in my group. And even in our best moments, there's been no small friction along those lines.

Even within the last few days I can recall strong examples. On our regular D&D game last Friday, I was particularly struck by the pervasive "Mother-may-I" procedure at work in everyone's contributions to the SIS. Everyone was constantly asking the GM whether their characters could do and say things, at a teeth-grinding level of granularity. "Did I hear that?" "Have they passed by me yet?" "Am I next to him when he does that?" All within the context of a single scene, single location, with no real action or threat or crisis. Instead of "When you walk out of the cave, I say. .. " it would be "Are they outside the cave yet? OK, then I say. . ." The sheer time and effort of it drove me nuts, to say nothing of the underlying assumption that the GM is the authority on when and how everything happens, as if he were "running" the world in the sense of a computer program, having to actually move all the game entities around in the imaginary space like a Newtonian machine.

My second example, a different D&D game with a different GM on Sunday night, was a lot more fun. But there was an incident of misunderstanding over facts of the SIS, which slowed down play and interrupted flow. The setting was a masquerade ball held at the opulent mansion of a rich and eccentric mage, who was going to unveil a rare and wondrous artifact he had acquired. When I announced that my rogue was going to go sneaking about the hallways in search of the artifact (or anything else of interest), the physical layout of the mansion became an issue. The GM said there was a wide, tall passage out of the ballroom, with two balconies above it. She even drew a diagram showing the passage entry and the two balcony semicircles jutting out above it. There were guards to distract and evade, then some exploration of the manor's passageways. Anyway, when two different factions showed up to to steal the artifact (and my guy high-tailed it back to the action), it happened that the confrontation took place in that same passage beneath the balconies. After forcing the surrender of the first faction, the second faction appeared on the balcony with a hostage. I was like, wait a minute, if the PCs are under the balcony, then we can't see each other. After a good deal of discussion and re-explaining (more diagrams were drawn), we finally found out that the GM meant circular catwalks, like rings, the occupants of which could of course look down on the floor below from the inside rail. It didn't ruin play or anything, but it was certainly a speedbump. And it's pretty representative (I think I'll call it the "20 Questions" effect) of misunderstandings that regularly plague play, usually hampering or preventing a character action after I've already planned it out--"no, you can't shoot that guy, there's a wall in the way!" kind of stuff.

Contemplating these two incidents, my source of frustration is pretty clear to me--I simply detest the micromanaging of time and space wrt the fictional events of play. In the case of the former example, I hate having to run every step, stumble, and sneeze by the GM for "does this work at this precise instant in the SIS" approval, and when I GM I similarly hate having to manage events at such a level myself. My response to a question like this is liable to be "huh? Oh, sure, fine," and if I'm asked often enough I get annoyed. As regards the second example, I prefer not to track physical space on that level of exactitude in the first place, at least without a map/battle grid/dungeon tiles or something. Like with my snooping around, which was conducted bit by bit, as in go down this hallway, turn left, duck into this room, search room, continue down hall, go down stairs, you find hallways going north, west, and south . . . I'd prefer to describe everything in broad strokes (you're in a mansion, it's got a huge ballroom, a garden, some back corridors, a secret underground area, etc) and resolve things at that level too. So with my sneaking I'd want something more like: (roll) "OK, you slipped out of the ballroom," (roll) "you're undetected in the hallways," (roll) "you found the hidden sub-basement," etc.

So to hear Ron speak of an effortless cure for this malady certainly has my attention. Clinton's discussion of IIEE in the Shadow of Yesterday text is a good foundation for addressing this issue, but I'm not sure how to port that (as a practice) out of that game and into another where the players' functional understanding is so different (if I could manage to play TSoY with them I could teach by example, but that's another thing. . .).

So, Ron: I'm not sure if what you're talking about applies to every issue I've raised above, but I think the core principle underlies it all: profound confusion and struggle over SIS input. So could you expand on what you were talking about in the quote--this concept that, when grasped, causes these disputes to disappear? Like, maybe you could unpack "what the game (text or played) provides so far" a bit. What's the "it" that the game provides? Play procedures? If so, then does your comment only apply to a game like TSoY which does have crystal-clear tools, or can I take a game of (say) D&D and use what it provides to this purpose? Or do you mean something besides procedures/rules? If so, what, and specifically how does whatever-it-is address the difficulties I'm describing?

Also, anyone else who has comments on the issue, feel free to chime in.

Peace,
-Joel
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David Artman
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« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2008, 09:13:25 AM »

If so, then does your comment only apply to a game like TSoY which does have crystal-clear tools, or can I take a game of (say) D&D and use what it provides to this purpose?
Well, actually, D&D does provide crystal clear tools--but you say you don't use them:
Quote
As regards the second example, I prefer not to track physical space on that level of exactitude in the first place, at least without a map/battle grid/dungeon tiles or something.
There's a reason D&D is so crunchy with distances, time, etc. There's a reason companies can actually make money selling wire bent into the shapes of Cone of Cold or Fireball areas of effect. D&D is a miniatures game with some role playing elements that *needs* battlemaps, figures, and step-locked timing. You're talk about shifting to the "broad strokes" mode of play (for whatever reason: story flow, relative interest in details, etc) is basically shifting away from the D&D mode of conflict resolution: whip out the map and roll initiative.

It's often a problem in games which, perforce, must switch between "high flow, low detail" play and "crunchy, inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot" play; HERO/Champions has the exact same thing going on. If one switches gears to High Crunch for combat, but keeps the Low Detail for scene setting... well, one gets 20 Questions and backtracking and inconsistencies.

Not trying to say, "You asked for it!" But next time you're in such a play situation, take the five minutes to wipe down the battlemat and sketch in the details that impact visibility, maneuverability, and speed--it doesn't have to be a cartographers wet dream, but it BETTER be able to answer line-of-sight and movement rate questions (two BIG elements of most Crunch systems like D&D and Hero).

HTH;
David
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2008, 05:36:41 PM »

I think you're missing a couple of points, Dave. First, you may have misread: I'm saying that I don't want exactitude. . .without a battlemat or tiles. If we're going to start counting 5-foot squares and areas of effect, I absolutely DO want to use the tools at our disposal as per the D&D rulebook. As a matter of fact I am the go-to guy in the group for battle grids; I've got a mess of Dungeon Tiles in my bag which I'll throw out when needed, setting up the encounter as the DM describes it. I either want to do that, or fall back on broad descriptive strokes as the unit of granularity which matters. What I don't want is this in-between sort of play, where spatial minutia matter, but there's instead of a physical grid we have an assumption that the DM has a virtual battle map in his head, which he disseminates to us, tells us when we're flanking, etc. Which is exactly what happened during combat on Friday.

So, this?
But next time you're in such a play situation, take the five minutes to wipe down the battlemat and sketch in the details that impact visibility, maneuverability, and speed--it doesn't have to be a cartographers wet dream, but it BETTER be able to answer line-of-sight and movement rate questions (two BIG elements of most Crunch systems like D&D and Hero).
Total agreement. That's in fact what I do.

Second, it's key to note that I'm not just talking about combat which D&D handles very clearly, but also to this whole wider framework of how a group handles framing ad description at all, including when there's no combat. A lot of that Friday session took place in the context of a freewheeling descriptive mode, where everyone's just throwing out "I go over here," "I do this," I talk to so and so," type stuff. That's where every little detail was fielded to the DM, which not only slowed down play, but I think hindered creativity due to the effort required to introduce something as simple as "I walk across the room" into the SIS. And that's something that, far as I know, D&D doesn't have any procedure whatsoever to address.

Peace,
-Joel
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Callan S.
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« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2008, 08:51:30 PM »

Hi Joel,

Quote
"Did I hear that?" "Have they passed by me yet?" "Am I next to him when he does that?"
During this, did any rolls actually happen? Or did all the little questions sort of circumvent rolls that might have otherwise emerged?
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David Artman
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« Reply #4 on: January 10, 2008, 08:14:37 AM »

I hear ya, Joel. And you're right: D&D doesn't support that in-between play.

I do think it works with casual narration, though--but you can't waffle. If the group is casually narrating "do this, go there" and then--WHAM!--the fight breaks out and range and AOE become key... well, you can expect confusion and clarifications and even--if you can tolerate it--retconning ("editing" the previous narrations to fit the actual battlegrid). THEN, you get the inevitable "Oh, no, I'd *never* have gone there if it put me out of casting range of our cleric!"

I don't really know what to tell you about how to deal with that. As a GM, I'd just say, "OK, whatever... you  went *here* instead, in range, and that's actually where the Thingie was that you wanted to mess with" and move on. In other words Say Yes. I mean, how often does it "break" the CR of an encounter to tweak the initial positions at first initiative?

Otherwise, you need to stay on the grid system OR have clear demarcations of when you're off-grid and on-grid. For example:
In the dungeon: on grid 24-7
Exploring the surrounding woods: off-grid until the instant a potential threat is perceived (Spot/Listen), then on-grid.
At the gala banquet of the mage: off-grid

Yes, the latter is your example... but that's a sign of your group's (or DM's) disconnect, I feel: HE was thinking of the banquet as an encounter waiting to happen, YOU all were just narrating away and role playing (and being a dirty sneak!). Wink

So the mansion should have been on-grid from the first guest's arrival. Period. We've done it all the time: draw out an area where all the encounters ended up being conversational or social challenges. And ya know what? We *still* had to know ranges and lines of sight and such--overhearing a whispered conversation without being seen listening? Whip out the measuring tape. Can I read his lips? Check lines of sight. Now, maybe you're notion of "casual" doesn't allow for such "tactical crunch" in "merely social/role playing" situations. Hell, maybe you're just playing the wrong system entirely, then, because (as you said) D&D doesn't have a strict, metered method for doing casual in a way that seamlessly shifts to crunch when needed. Yeah, there's some DM advice about pacing play and compressing time for "boring" things like travel or large area searching. But that's all "DIY" stuff--like describing a few light fixtures to someone and expecting them to deduce how they're installed and wired. Thus, the DM has to handle a lot of explication and the players need to be a tad forgiving and flexible, or you gotta be on-grid 24-7. Pick one.

The second example I give above is that very "transition case," and I've been in that situation probably thousands of times. Out of nowhere, the battlegrid plops down and trees and rocks and elevations are being scrawled furiously. I say to the players, "OK, where are you in this general area," indicating an edge of the area I have drawn. Munchkinly positioning and strategizing ensues.

And ya know what? So what? Yep, the PCs will form a neigh-perfect array based on their combat niches. So What? These folks (if not, like, 2nd level) are presumably serious combat machines--adventurers and battlemasters--and so why wouldn't they almost always move (in "casual mode") in proper support array? Every watched a squad of Special Forces walk into a bar together? You ain't getting the drop on them, there will be no unnoticed corners or blindspots, they get back-to-wall almost by instinct (in fact, probably ACTUALLY by instinct). So who cares if the PCs "always" enjoy ideal positioning? Throw some blink dogs at 'em and that will go to shit soon enough. Cheesy

Anyhow, I'm rambling a bit, but I hope the gist of my point is still clear: Say Yes; don't sweat ret-conning; let the PCs be as optimal as they want.
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #5 on: January 10, 2008, 11:31:19 PM »

Callan,

During this, did any rolls actually happen? Or did all the little questions sort of circumvent rolls that might have otherwise emerged?

Well, there wasn't really anything roll-worthy in that part of the session, it was all a by-the nose GM-directed plot scene: PCs sent to get a thing from a guy, meet the guy, he leads us to the thing, we get the thing, we're walking back, we find some mages chanting in a grove, it turns into a combat encounter. The meticulous I'm-hear-not-there, do I overhear that remark? type stuff seemed purely aimed at maintaining versimiltude at a highly atomic level--i.e. "I don't want to break down the causality of the world by being ten feet to the left of where I 'should' be!"

There was a series of rolls leading up to the combat encounter--mainly spellcraft and knowledge rolls to determine if the chanting mages (who wouldn't acknowledge us mid-chant) were a threat or hostile or whatever. (Results were all inconclusive; they were then attacked by a mysterious NPC while most of us stood around not having any clear side to back in the fight. But that's a whole
'nother issue.)

Dave,

I don't really know what to tell you about how to deal with that.
Yeah, me neither. Except maybe:
Otherwise, you need to stay on the grid system OR have clear demarcations of when you're off-grid and on-grid.

That sounds like a good baseline for a start. It probably requires some group discussion and explicit buy-in for that procedure. It would cut both ways: if you're on grid, the grid is law, and if you're flanking and AoE's and suh don't work out, too damn bad. And if you're off-grid, then you get appropriate leeway, including the leeway to tweak the grid positioning when shit does hit the fan (to bypass that leeway you have to go on-grid before the shit hits).

So the mansion should have been on-grid from the first guest's arrival. Period. We've done it all the time: draw out an area where all the encounters ended up being conversational or social challenges. And ya know what? We *still* had to know ranges and lines of sight and such

See, that seems kinda over-the-top to me. It's certainly a way to go, but I would find it much more fun to handle these things on a more abstract level, incorporating (say) the success/failure of lipreading into a general sense motive check. 'Cause when the shit does hit, you can always fall back on this:
And ya know what? So what? Yep, the PCs will form a neigh-perfect array based on their combat niches. So What? These folks (if not, like, 2nd level) are presumably serious combat machines--adventurers and battlemasters--and so why wouldn't they almost always move (in "casual mode") in proper support array? Every watched a squad of Special Forces walk into a bar together? You ain't getting the drop on them, there will be no unnoticed corners or blindspots, they get back-to-wall almost by instinct (in fact, probably ACTUALLY by instinct). So who cares if the PCs "always" enjoy ideal positioning? Throw some blink dogs at 'em and that will go to shit soon enough. Cheesy

I too have no problem with going this route, provided we understand going in that that's the way we roll. It's a perfect comprimise between the two modes, allowing me to be freewheeling with my Bluffing scenes and deadly precise with my Sneak Attack. Smiley

peace,
-Joel
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Callan S.
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« Reply #6 on: January 11, 2008, 01:05:59 AM »

Hi again, Joel,

Ah, I'll tell you what I thought might be happening - I'll extend your sentence a bit
Quote
"I don't want to break down the causality of the world by being ten feet to the left of where I 'should' be, because otherwise I'll be penalised by that missunderstanding (either by being unable to do things or having to make rolls I otherwise wouldn't have had to make)"
Looking into what's the problem before getting onto a solution (Ron might be able to swing by with a killer post, but this is how I'm approaching it). Was it anything at all like that, or were they actually enjoying working out every detail of who's where when?
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #7 on: January 13, 2008, 12:43:34 AM »

Hi, Callan!

Yeah, I understood what you were getting at, and I gots no problem with that approach, with the probing questions and so forth. That said, I must stress that I really think it's like I said (without your bolded addition)--a pure permission thing grounded in adhering to the conceit of a "real" version of the gameworld that is observed and reported by the GM. It's like when one player says "I walk out of the cave," a little clockwork model of that character starts trundling along, thus when (and ONLY when!) that model reaches the point of the cave mouth, the second character who is standing there is "cleared" to speak to the character. And since only the GM can "see" the clockwork, "permission to speak" is vetted through him. And if that sounds like a freaking meticulous and slow way to play a roleplaying game, well. . .yeah, it is. Tongue

I really don't see much "gotta be in just the right square to flank/cast my buff spells/etc" going on in these exchanges. I understand how that easily could be the case, but it's not with this group.

Peace,
-Joel
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Callan S.
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« Reply #8 on: January 13, 2008, 01:46:42 AM »

Oh, I don't think I was probing for "gotta be in just the right square to flank/cast my buff spells/etc". That sounds too positive, like the player has a plan and that plan is to be in a certain square. I'm thinking more a player that has no plan and in the past various nasty zaps have launched themselves at him (do you know what I mean - it's like missing one detail and taking alot of damage, or losing gear, and such. It's a bit hard to summerise). I'm thinking players in constant damage control - not toward any purpose, but simply avoiding 'pain'/game penalties. It doesn't get play anywhere, but it's like flinching away from a hot counter top that burnt your fingers in the past - they can't help but keep flinching/hammering out every fucking detail.

Your describing a considerable amount of effort - usually effort is driven by pain or joy. I'm guessing pain (which drives avoidance), cause you havn't described any happy faces. Don't worry, I'm not thinking gamism! Still sounds way off?
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contracycle
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« Reply #9 on: January 13, 2008, 02:24:47 AM »

My own solution top the problem of switching from Low Detail to High Crunch has been to stay in Low Detail.  Combat scenes, even with all the crunch, are conducted in much the same way as the usual question-and-confirmation structure of play.

It probably helps that I am not prone to the kind of "zaps" that Callan mentioned, or at least, not for a long time.  As a rule if a player wants to be in a given "square" I will simply allow it.  At other times I am much more assertive and will tell the player whether they are or are not in that square before asking them for an action; I stick a finger in their face and yell "X happens!  Do Something!"  I am also willing to interrupt or reject proposed player actions, but if I do this I will try to provide some sort of compensation, suggest some other thing which the change of circumstances now permits.

The 'little clockwork model' in my head is indeed the only 'true' model, but as long as I am not persecuting the players, and have their trust, then IME it's functional. Because I am not locked into the tactical and map-based approach, I can also introduce normal narration should that be required; it is probable, although of course not certain, that given the situation with the ring balconies I would have described not only the appearance on the balcony but also how the characters could see them (that is, through the ring); just as in normal narration, I am aware of dominating the only channel of communication and that if I don't describe it it isn't there.

And if all else fails, I can always own up and apologise for confusing the players, which at least mitigates the sense of having being unfairly or unreasonably treated.
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Ron Hammack
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« Reply #10 on: January 13, 2008, 07:57:44 AM »

Well, there wasn't really anything roll-worthy in that part of the session, it was all a by-the nose GM-directed plot scene: PCs sent to get a thing from a guy, meet the guy, he leads us to the thing, we get the thing, we're walking back, we find some mages chanting in a grove, it turns into a combat encounter. The meticulous I'm-hear-not-there, do I overhear that remark? type stuff seemed purely aimed at maintaining versimiltude at a highly atomic level--i.e. "I don't want to break down the causality of the world by being ten feet to the left of where I 'should' be!"

Do you think it's possible that "do I overhear that remark" might have meant "can I roll some dice now so that I feel like I have a little mechanical control over this otherwise by-the-nose GM-directed plot scene"?
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Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #11 on: January 14, 2008, 12:36:24 AM »

Callan,
Oh, I don't think I was probing for "gotta be in just the right square to flank/cast my buff spells/etc". That sounds too positive, like the player has a plan and that plan is to be in a certain square. I'm thinking more a player that has no plan and in the past various nasty zaps have launched themselves at him (do you know what I mean - it's like missing one detail and taking alot of damage, or losing gear, and such. It's a bit hard to summerise). I'm thinking players in constant damage control - not toward any purpose, but simply avoiding 'pain'/game penalties. It doesn't get play anywhere, but it's like flinching away from a hot counter top that burnt your fingers in the past - they can't help but keep flinching/hammering out every fucking detail.

Your describing a considerable amount of effort - usually effort is driven by pain or joy. I'm guessing pain (which drives avoidance), cause you havn't described any happy faces. Don't worry, I'm not thinking gamism! Still sounds way off?

I understand what you're saying, and it's a fairly reasonable conjecture. In fact, if you recorded the game chatter outside of narration, stated actions, etc. I think it might point to this a bit--but I really don't think it applies for the reasons we explored in the Gamist non-affirmation thread: Everyone talks a Hardcore game, but there's little bark behind that bite, either on the players' or GM's part.

Hi, Gareth,
My own solution top the problem of switching from Low Detail to High Crunch has been to stay in Low Detail.  Combat scenes, even with all the crunch, are conducted in much the same way as the usual question-and-confirmation structure of play.

[SNIP]

The 'little clockwork model' in my head is indeed the only 'true' model, but as long as I am not persecuting the players, and have their trust, then IME it's functional. Because I am not locked into the tactical and map-based approach, I can also introduce normal narration should that be required; it is probable, although of course not certain, that given the situation with the ring balconies I would have described not only the appearance on the balcony but also how the characters could see them (that is, through the ring); just as in normal narration, I am aware of dominating the only channel of communication and that if I don't describe it it isn't there.

That seems like pretty much THE functional way to handle the "GM holds the true model" mode of play, i.e. keep it loose and forgiving in recognition of the players' incomplete or murky information. It can still lead to problems based on, say, a player holding an incorrect concept of the model for considerable time, resulting in ruined plans/nonsensical narration/negated actions when it finally comes to light (this happens to me all the damn time). But your approach beats the hell out of the "describe it loosely, then when the players feed input in, judge it meticulously" approach I see a lot in our games.

Hi, Ron!
Do you think it's possible that "do I overhear that remark" might have meant "can I roll some dice now so that I feel like I have a little mechanical control over this otherwise by-the-nose GM-directed plot scene"?

You might have something there. On the other hand, I've seen similar behavior in less GM-directed (at least seemingly), "free play" type scenes as well.

*          *          *

Honestly, everyone, I feel like I'm getting bogged down in this back-and-forth of analyzing the minute details of the play examples, which is getting farther and farther from my original goal of exploring the larger issue--succinctly restated, "How does Ron [Edwards]' statement about relying on what the game has 'provided so far' apply to the whole spectrum of RPG texts?" Like, does it only work (textually) for a game like TSoY or DitV which lays out speaking authority very clearly, or is there something in this vein to be drawn from even a vaguer text like D&D? Or in the latter case, must one fill in the gaps with their own procedures, and what would that (taking D&D as a test case) look like?

Given how Ron-centric the inquiry is, I suspect I might not get much of what I'm looking for unless he decides to chime in. But there has been some good feedbck and advice in folks' comments so far, and I'd like to keep further replies in that vein.

Peace,
-Joel
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« Reply #12 on: January 15, 2008, 10:44:16 AM »

Hi Joel,

Quote
General confusion, jostling and jockeying over who did what and how and if-you-did-that-Id've-done-this--could all almost be a definition of roleplaying at times in my group. And even in our best moments, there's been no small friction along those lines.<functionally<anything<needs to be centralized, but rather that however an immediate Situation is established, the group knows<
Quote
So, Ron: I'm not sure if what you're talking about applies to every<as if
« Last Edit: January 15, 2008, 10:46:27 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged
Joel P. Shempert
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« Reply #13 on: January 16, 2008, 10:16:21 PM »

Hi, Ron!

OK, to digest tis I'm going to have to break it down into chunks. I'll try not to make it to staccato or disjointed.

OK, I still do want to play TSoY with the gang, but you're saying there's something more to do at a fundamental level before even a game like that will be used properly and functionally by the group. Which was my fear. I've been kind of schitzophrenically longing and dreading playing Dogs of Capes or TSoY with them, 'cause if I do, and it's still suck, then that's in, then, no? Game over, I'll have no social currency to suggest or enact change, 'cause my wierd hippie games are no different from the usual muddle.

So what is that something more? You say it's the core to which TSoY's IIEE procedures are but an expression. I'm all ears.

Peace,
-Joel

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Frank Tarcikowski
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« Reply #14 on: January 17, 2008, 01:41:36 AM »

i]notice<over there?over there?
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If you come across a post by a guest called Frank T, that was me. My former Forge account was destroyed in the Spam Wars. Collateral damage.
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